Nestled deep in the heart of West Plains lies a tale that spans continents, skies, and hearts. It's the story of a man who, against the odds, changed the very skies above rural America. From humble beginnings in a one-room schoolhouse to taking charge of one of the nation's largest air ambulance services, William Roy (Bill) Chritton, Jr.'s life stands as a testament to perseverance, love, and vision.
The small town of Pomona, Missouri, situated amid rolling hills and vibrant greenery, may not seem like the starting point for an epic journey. Yet, it was here, in the quiet embrace of this modest town, that William Roy (Bill) Chritton, Jr. began his remarkable odyssey.
Born on a spring day, May 13, 1933, Bill was the beacon of hope and joy for William Chritton, Sr. and Margaret Chritton. In those days, Pomona was a close-knit community, a place where neighbors knew each other's stories and children's laughter echoed through the streets. It was an era defined by simplicity, hard work, and deep-rooted values.
The Butler School, a quaint one-room schoolhouse, was emblematic of the era. Whitewashed walls, creaky wooden floors, and an iconic bell which signaled the start and end of each school day. This was where young Bill, with a curious mind and a thirst for knowledge, began his academic journey. Each grade sat together, often learning in a harmonized environment where older students would sometimes help teach their younger peers. Despite the school's size, or perhaps because of it, students forged deep connections.
It was on the playground of this school that Bill's life took an unexpected turn. Butler School often engaged in friendly softball matches with neighboring schools. On that fateful day, the competitors were from the Turner grade school. As Bill, then the sole eighth-grader at Butler, took his position as the pitcher, he was met with the fierce determination of a young Wanda Lee Weatherford. With the sun casting long shadows on the field, she made the match-winning move, sending Bill's pitch soaring for a home run.
While many might have seen this as a mere game, it was the beginning of a narrative that spanned decades. That powerful swing wasn’t just about victory on a playground; it was about challenging conventions, a theme that would resonate throughout Bill’s life. His brief sting of defeat soon transformed into admiration for Wanda, a bond that only grew stronger when fate brought them together again at West Plains High School.
Their high school days at West Plains High School solidified their bond, leading to their marriage in 1954.
In those formative years, amidst the backdrop of a rapidly changing world outside, Bill's roots in Pomona shaped his values and vision. It was a beginning, humble in its nature, but rich in experiences and encounters that would lay the foundation for the remarkable journey ahead.
The echoes of duty and responsibility reverberated through the life of Bill Chritton shortly after he graduated from West Plains High School. As the country grappled with the pressures of global tensions and looming conflicts, the draft became an inevitable reality for many young men. Bill, with his characteristic determination, responded to the call to serve his nation, trading the serene landscapes of Missouri for the structured confines of a military base.
Bill's military journey was both a testament to his enduring resilience and a reflection of the larger narrative of a country in flux. As a fresh recruit, he quickly adjusted to the rigors of army life, a world where discipline, honor, and dedication weren't just words but a way of life. His adaptability and leadership qualities shone, making it evident that he was destined for roles greater than the ordinary.
Marriage to Wanda in 1954 added a new dimension to his life, intertwining love and duty in complex ways. As the couple welcomed their children into the world, Bill's military assignments took the family on a whirlwind journey across the United States, from the picturesque landscapes of Missouri to the bustling environments of Texas and Virginia, and even to the historical charm of Vicenza, Italy. Each move was a new chapter, an opportunity for the family to embrace different cultures, experiences, and challenges.
Yet, perhaps the most defining and perilous phase of Bill's military service was his deployment to Vietnam. The Vietnam War, marked by its intense combat and complex geopolitical undertones, presented challenges that tested the mettle of even the most seasoned soldiers.
Taking to the skies, Bill served as a Huey gunship pilot. The iconic "whump-whump" sound of the Huey became synonymous with the war, and Bill found himself navigating treacherous terrains, rescuing comrades, and engaging in intense aerial combat. The skies over Vietnam were fraught with danger; every mission had the potential to be a pilot's last. Yet, Bill's prowess in the cockpit and his unwavering commitment to his comrades on the ground earned him not one, but two tours of duty in this challenging theater of war.
His gallantry didn’t go unnoticed. The shower of commendations that followed was a testament to his bravery and exceptional service. The Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, and the 39 Air Medals - these weren't mere decorations but symbols of his sacrifice, courage, and dedication to a cause greater than himself. Of particular note was the Air Medal with the "V-device" for valor. This distinction, reserved for acts of heroism, was a fitting recognition for Bill's record-setting combat hours flown in a month.
However, the weight of these medals also told another story: of nights away from family, of close calls in the hostile skies, and of friends and comrades lost. The backdrop of the Vietnam War, with its political complexities and social ramifications, meant that Bill’s return from the battlefield was layered with both relief and reflection.
Bill's service and sacrifice were emblematic of an era and of the thousands who, like him, committed themselves to their nation's call. It was a journey of profound dedication, of moments of heart-stopping fear, and of an unwavering commitment to duty.
Bill's service wasn't just in the air or on the battlefields. The final decade of his military career took him to the heart of America's defense establishment, the Pentagon. Here, he lent his expertise in the Secretary of the Army's office and as Chief in the Office of Congressional Legislative Liaison. His commitment to lifelong learning saw him earn a master's degree in international affairs from George Washington University.
Retiring as a Colonel in 1980, felling a magnetic pull to the rolling hills and familiar landscapes of West Plains, the Chrittons came home to a promise of comfort and community. For Bill Chritton, after decades of traversing both domestic and international territories in service to his country, this pull was irresistibly strong. In 1980, as he hung up his military boots, trading them for the relaxed pace of civilian life, Bill embarked on a new chapter, one characterized by a return to his origins and a vision that aimed skyward.
Their return to West Plains was, in many ways, a rekindling of cherished memories. As Bill and Wanda settled into the rhythms of civilian life, they took on a venture that echoed the simplicity and charm of their childhood - a strawberry farm. The rich Missouri soil, which had seen Bill's first steps, now bore witness to rows upon rows of vibrant, red strawberries. It wasn't just a business; it was a labor of love. Children giggling with berry-stained faces, families coming together for strawberry-picking weekends, and the joy of watching the fruits of their labor flourish - the farm was a nod to both tradition and community.
But the skies, which had been a significant part of Bill's life, beckoned yet again. Not in the roar of a gunship, but in the gentle hum of a hot air balloon. For the residents of West Plains, the sight of Bill and Wanda's balloon, gracefully dancing against the backdrop of sunrises and sunsets, became a spectacle of wonder and delight. Offering rides to locals, they turned this passion into an opportunity for many to experience the thrill of flight. The vast patchwork of green fields, meandering rivers, and clustered homesteads viewed from the serene heights offered a perspective that grounded many, ironically, even when up in the air.
Amidst the rows of strawberry plants, an unexpected encounter set the stage for Bill's most transformative venture yet. The visit by Ken Harper and Gary Frazier wasn't just another friendly chat under the Missouri sun. They brought with them a visionary idea that combined Bill's love for flying with a noble mission - a helicopter air ambulance company, specifically tailored for rural areas.
The idea was groundbreaking. Urban areas were no strangers to the benefits of air medevac services, but rural towns like West Plains? It was unheard of. The skepticism from industry stalwarts was palpable. Many dismissed the idea as a pipe dream, believing it was bound to failure. Yet, the very ethos of the venture resonated with Bill's spirit - service, community, and pushing boundaries.
As Bill threw his weight behind the venture, not just as an investor but also as the chief pilot, Air Evac, EMS, took shape. It wasn’t just about business; it was a life-saving mission. Every flight, every rescue, was a testament to the company's commitment to making emergency medical services accessible to the heartland of America.
Under Bill's guidance and with his relentless drive, Air Evac transitioned to Air Evac Lifeteam. From its humble origins in West Plains, it expanded its wings, establishing 41 bases across 14 states. Defying skeptics, the company emerged as the largest independently-owned air ambulance company in the U.S.
The success of Air Evac Lifeteam wasn’t just in its numbers or expansion. Its real victory lay in the countless lives saved, the numerous families who got a second chance with their loved ones, and the realization of a dream that rural America needn’t be left behind in emergency medical care. For Bill, this venture was a culmination of his life's themes: service, innovation, and community. From the serene skies of West Plains to the helipads of Air Evac Lifeteam, Bill Chritton's journey was a testament to the power of vision, resilience, and roots.
On July 21, 2021 William Roy (Bill) Chritton, Jr. earned his eternal wings, and took his final flight from this world.
The town mourned the loss of a local hero.
"He was a giant in the air medical industry, and his contributions...were enormous," said West Plains Mayor Mike Topliff.
The tapestry of life is woven with threads of moments, choices, and the impacts one leaves behind. The incredible odyssey of William Roy (Bill) Chritton, Jr. is no mere tale; it is an embodiment of resilience, commitment, and transformative vision. A life that began amidst the simplicity of Pomona's embrace unfurled into a journey that touched countless horizons and hearts.
Each chapter of Bill's life speaks to the power of determination. From the playgrounds of Butler School to the turbulent skies over Vietnam, from the rolling strawberry fields of West Plains to the commanding heights of air ambulance services, Bill's story is a masterclass in pushing boundaries, defying expectations, and relentlessly pursuing one's passions.
Yet, amidst all his accolades and accomplishments, the true essence of Bill's life was found in the quieter moments. It resided in the warmth of his embrace, the wisdom in his words, and the twinkle in his eye as he watched a sunrise from his hot air balloon. It was palpable in the gentle way he nurtured every strawberry plant, and in the determination with which he ensured that Air Evac Lifeteam soared, breaking barriers and saving lives.
His legacy isn't just in the medals that adorned his uniform or the key to the city that he was awarded. It lies in the countless lives he touched, both directly and indirectly. It is in the stories that grandparents in West Plains tell their grandchildren about the time they soared above the clouds in Bill's hot air balloon. It’s in the teary-eyed gratitude of families reunited with their loved ones, thanks to the vision of Air Evac Lifeteam.
As the news of Bill’s passing reverberated through the community of West Plains and beyond, it was evident that a luminary had departed. But luminaries, even in absence, continue to shine, illuminating paths for others. Bill Chritton's life serves as a beacon, reminding us of the boundless potential within each of us, the profound impact of service, and the timeless value of community.
In the mosaic of history, while some names fade, others are etched with golden ink. William Roy (Bill) Chritton, Jr. belongs to the latter. His story, an intertwining of love, duty, innovation, and legacy, will forever inspire and guide future generations, reminding them of the infinite possibilities that life holds when one leads with heart, vision, and an unwavering commitment to making a difference.